What exactly is a Jewish state? - opinion

The Likud, Religious Zionists, Shas and United Torah Judaism are trying to form a coalition to lead the Jewish state, but Jewish state is subjective.

 Benjamin Netanyahu looks at Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri as they stand with other members of the new Israeli parliament after their swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem November 15, 2022.  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu looks at Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri as they stand with other members of the new Israeli parliament after their swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem November 15, 2022.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

‘At last, we will have a Jewish government in a Jewish state!” 

This is the rallying cry I have been hearing since the moment the Israeli election concluded, with a slim plurality for Netanyahu and his allies (“slim” because the popular vote was almost even, and Meretz narrowly missed crossing the threshold, which would have resulted in another inconclusive, 60-60 standoff for the fifth straight time). 

Should the four blocs – Likud, Religious Zionists, Shas and UTJ – indeed join together and form a government, it will certainly be led by the proponents of a “Jewish state.” But what exactly does that phrase mean? What kind of Judaism – and state – are they hoping to create?

As a proud Orthodox Jew, I certainly want Israel to have a Jewish character. I want Shabbat and the chagim to not only be respected but also glorified. What a wonderful thing it would be if a good chunk of the millions and millions of shekels soon to be handed over to the religious parties could be used to enhance the holy days in our communities. If the state would build large, lovely sukkot, overflowing with foods of all types in every city’s public square, and organize massive Passover Seders in community centers, synagogues and auditoriums throughout the land – all at little or no cost to the citizens. If we would use those funds to provide mezuzot, tefillin, tzitzit, lulav and etrog to anyone who wanted to celebrate the traditional way.

If we would heavily subsidize kosher supervision so that no restaurant in Israel would avoid kashrut because of the added cost; if we paid the fee of certified mohalim so that ritual circumcisions can be carried out with no financial concerns. Or if we regulated the cost of Jewish burial – for Israeli citizens, as well as Jews of every country who want to be buried in the Holy Land.

 Israeli designate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the swearing-in ceremony for the new Israeli parliament the 25th Knesset in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (credit: ABIR SULTAN/POOL/VIA REUTERS) Israeli designate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the swearing-in ceremony for the new Israeli parliament the 25th Knesset in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (credit: ABIR SULTAN/POOL/VIA REUTERS)

And if we would spend the funds to promote Torah learning for everyone: setting up teachers and study centers in every locale; arranging weekend Shabbatonim for all ages throughout the year, led by talented rabbis and teachers at a nominal charge; if we’d help every Jewish family to have its own library of essential Torah texts. And think what would result if we opened ourselves to all the 70 avenues of Torah knowledge: the Torah of the yeshivot, of course, but also Torat Eretz Yisrael, Torah study that specifically focuses on the miraculous blessing of Medinat Yisrael and the new halachic challenges and opportunities that have now come back to life after 2,000 years. And the promotion of Torat Nashim, the study and teaching of Torah by women for women, focusing on their unique character and contribution to the totality of Am Yisrael. 

And let us also financially encourage Torat Hilonim, the burgeoning popularity of Torah and Talmud and Tanach in the secular community. This is a vast reservoir of wonderful Jews who increasingly gather together in appreciation of the timeless traditions encapsulated in our textual treasure chest. Imagine the Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name, of a million self-declared hilonim meeting annually to explore and offer their own interpretations of God’s word. It would increase wisdom a thousandfold.

But all of this must come about freely, not by force. It has been proven over and over again that compelling people to observe mitzvot will only be counter-productive. Israelis don’t take kindly to being told they must wear tefillin or eat matza or give their son a brit milah. Left alone, with ample knowledge and opportunity at hand, they will, in overwhelming numbers, choose the Jewish path. But if we foolishly legislate their participation, they will resent and rebel. Our greatest sages understood that you lead by example, not enforcement – and so the so-called religious leaders must be extraordinarily careful to present a model of Torah derech eretz where intelligence and integrity intertwine.

And then there is the “state” component of a Jewish state. Those holding the reins must dedicate themselves to the advancement of the State of Israel and all its components. Spread “justice throughout the land” and work hard to protect the innocent, as well as prosecute the guilty. Light jail sentences for rapists or terrorists and crooked industries that inflict exorbitant prices on the public are sins against both Man and God. Judaism places the highest values on how we treat our fellow human being – Jew or non-Jew – even more than how we relate to the Almighty.

And there must be respect for the institutions of the nation, preventing any group in any locale from creating a state-within-a-state that flagrantly repudiates the collective will of the people, even if they claim a theological reason for doing so. This is particularly true vis a vis the IDF and the homage we must pay to our holy soldiers. It is inconceivable that any synagogue or religious institution can denigrate the army – even by so much as refusing to recite the Prayer for the Welfare of the Soldiers at Shabbat services – and still receive a stipend from the government.

A “Jewish state” will also be a model for the world at large. We should lead in the effort to keep the world safe and clean and ecologically balanced (shockingly, the haredi parties have already insisted that the tax on disposables – which are the chief pollutants of our land and waters – be eliminated). And we must embrace those who sincerely choose to join the Jewish people and make our fate their fate.

Most importantly, there must be a spirit of love and acceptance among all elements of our population if we are to create this truly Jewish state. Judaism believes that all people are created b’tzelem Elokim, in God’s image. Each and every person is unique and special, and each deserves to be treated with dignity and honor. No one has a monopoly on God, and no one is better than anyone else – different, perhaps, but not better – regardless of the clothes he or she wears or the choices they make in pursuing their lifestyle or livelihood. God is neither close-minded nor color-conscious; He judges people by their conduct, their compassion, their concern for others.

I anxiously await the day when a young lady in a T-shirt and jeans, a young man with a knitted kippa, and a fellow with a black hat and beard will pass each other on every street over Shabbat, and they will simultaneously smile at one another and cheerfully proclaim, “Shabbat shalom!” Then we will truly be on the way to a “Jewish state.”  

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]